What is Workplace Abuse? | AboutLeaders.com
Article by Dr. Annette Roter
June 12, 2012

verbal abuseLast month we discussed the Narcissist Leader or Employee. Many responded that they could and can relate to this issue. They were able to identify people in their lives or work place that fit the description right on. This month we will focus on the abusive leader or employee. I believe that when you read this article you will be able to relate to these behaviors.

When I thought of abuse, my mind went to domestic abuse that is physical and emotional. My mind never went to abuse in the workplace. After all, we are all adults and should all respect ourselves, right?  However, abuse in the workplace is rampant and does impact people both emotionally and physically. You will be surprised how many people have experienced this type of leadership or employee behavior. As a result of these types of behaviors there is an increased focus on civility programs in the workplace.

What is Workplace Abuse?

First, let’s take a look at what the definition of abusive leadership is. Abusive behaviors in the workplace can be defined as behaviors that include public criticism, use of derogatory names, condescending tones, intimidation, tantrums, rudeness, coercion, and blaming others for mistakes they did not make (Hornstein, 1996; Tepper & Duffy, 2002). These types of employees or leaders are viewed as using their power to mistreat and disrespect others.

One thing to keep in harassment signmind, this type of behavior is not just limited to one single person; it can be directed to several individuals’ including a team. The goal of the abusive leader or employee is to gain and maintain control through fear and intimidation (Hornstein, 1996). In many cases they are quite successful.

Research has shown that employees subjected to abuse in the workplace show less commitment to their organization and ended up leaving the organization, eventually. Employees who have experienced this type of leadership felt that the behaviors were unjust resulting in a negative attitude toward work, the organization for allowing it to happen and their overall environment, including team work (Tepper, 2000).

In addition, abusive behaviors in the workplace are costly to organizations. The monetary cost of such behavior in the United Sates exceeds $23 billion each year. This amount includes increased health care costs to the employer, absenteeism, and lost productivity (Tepper, Duffy, Henle & Lambert, 2006).

What does it REALLY Cost?

If we put the monetary issue aside there is a larger issue that needs to be looked at. Abusive behaviors are often psychological and emotional attacks against employees. Because of these behaviors, employees stated that they often had feelings of being incompetent, embarrassed, guilt, and shame. As a result these emotional issues manifested themselves into physical issues for the employee (Roter, 2011).

There has been such an increase in abusive behaviors that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) specifically forbids retaliation by employers against employees who file or threaten to file charges because of these behaviors. Although, the EEOC forbids this type of behavior, employees who address this issue, still experience retaliation from their leaders (Hunter and Bandow, 2009). The EEOC in 2007 experienced a 30% increase in the numbers of complaints made by employees regarding retaliation and abusive leadership (Greenwald, 2007).


Abusive behavior shows itself mostly in the form of verbal and emotional abuse.  In some cases there are employees that experience physical abuse in the workplace. In a recent study, an employee reported that she was the subject of physical abuse by her manager. She experienced objects thrown at her including a chart that eventually cut her forehead and required minor medical attention.

In another case, an employee was often trapped by his leader’s tantrums as he would back the employee into the wall, yell and scream at the employee, and then spit into the employee’s face. This was all done while the employee was told he was worthless, incompetent, and would eventually end up homeless and without a job. This happened for many years.  However, both employees eventually left their organizations, (Roter, 2011)

bullies not coolMost of the employees in the study stated that they experienced verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of a co-worker or leader. This type of abuse impacted employees for several years after the experience. One subject stated that she was often called stupid, couldn’t write, and didn’t have what it took. She was also told that she skated by for most of her career and the leader could not understand how she got to where she was. The leader threatened the employee many times, even suggesting that the employee get psychological help.

The employee went on and ended up doing great things in her career but, it took many years to build her confidence back. She shared that no matter how often she hears that she is good, talented and outstanding; she always hears this manager’s voice in her head and questions whether she is stupid and incompetent (Roter, 2011). Even to this day; this leader still has power over this employee.

“Why doesn’t the employee just leave?”

Like the victims of domestic abuse, it is often not that easy to leave an abusive work environment. In many cases the employee is so torn down that they believe the insults and believe they can’t leave.

One employee stated that their leader would often tell her that she was so incompetent that she would never get hired any place else. She believed that she would never get another job elsewhere.

leadership skillsAll the participants in the study stated that they lived in fear of the next interaction with this leader or employee (Roter, 2011). The psychological toll in many cases is just too much for the employee to handle!

It’s Your Turn

What types of programs does your organization have in place to address abuse in the work place? Have you ever experienced this type of behavior if so, please share your stories below.


Greenwald, J. (2007).  Workplace retaliation aims rising.  Business Insurance, 41(28), 12-14
Hornstein, H. (1996). Brutal bosses and their prey. New York, NY: Penguin
Hunter, D., & Bandow, D. (2009). Abusive managers and variables impacting retaliation in organizations.  The Business Review, Cambridge, 12(1), 33-42.
Roter, A. (2011) The Lived Experiences of Registered Nurses Exposed to Toxic Leadership Behaviors.  Doctoral Dissertation.  ProQuest
Tepper, B., & Duffy, D. (2002). Abusive supervision and subordinates organizational citizenship behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(6), 1068-107.
Tepper, B., Duffy, D., Henle, C., & Lambert, L. (2006). Procedural injustice, victim precipitation, and abusive supervision.  Personnel Psychology, 59(1) 101-124.

Dr. Annette Roter

Annette is an experienced leadership and organization development professional. Her research focus is on toxic/destructive behaviors within organizations. Her email is abroter@yahoo.com.

  • Great article! It’s sad how one bad leader can make such a huge impact on many outstanding emoployees. I have had many situations with a past leader that I find myself second guessing decisions to this day. I have to remind myself that I got hired into my role because the company sees potential in me and that I need to let myself shine. It’s important that companies not only evaluate the employees but look at the leaders and the impact they are making with their teams. Sometimes change isn’t a bad thing. One quote I reference for myself and teams I’ve coached is from an amazing woman, Eleanor Roosevlet, who said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Thank you for writing this article! I look forward to seeing the topic for next month.

  • What is saddest about this is that in more cases than not, the manager is protected by those above him/her. In a previous job my department manager psychologically abused most of the staff, and this was well-known throughout the organization. I left, as did 5 others (half the department staff.) We made it very clear to top management why we were leaving. To this day, two years later, the manager is still in the position.

  • Hi Sharon, that is usually the case. Leaders often do not know how to address these behaviors or they don’t see it. The person is one way with leaders and another way with direct reports. When employees complain leadership does not see it. How can we make leadership aware of these behaviors? Annette B Roter

  • Great points, Annette. It’s so sad to see this type of behavior from leaders. I wonder how soon it will be before employees start to sue employers for bullying, just as students are starting to use the legal system for bullying at school. Those emotional scars run deep and can be costly on many levels.

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.